Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Chapter 1 : "Their Manners Are Decorous and Praiseworthy" | Summary



Christopher Columbus is the first white European to come across the native peoples of the New World. He finds the Tainos of San Salvador to be a "peaceable" people, and he takes 10 of them with him back to Spain so they can "be introduced to the white man's ways," including religion. The Tainos and other indigenous people of the Caribbean do not object to religious conversion, but they do have a problem with groups of Europeans combing the islands for gold and jewels. Entire villages are burned to the ground, and their inhabitants are kidnapped and sold as slaves in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of natives are dead within a decade of Columbus's arrival in October 1492.

The first successful English colony in America is established in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia. Wanting their settlement to thrive, colonial leaders convince Powhatan chief Wahunsonacook that his people should provide the settlers with food. Wahunsonacook becomes loyal to the English when his daughter Pocahontas marries Englishman John Rolfe. The rest of the tribe doesn't like this, and they try to drive the English "back into the sea from which they had come" after Wahunsonacook's death. The plan backfires, and 7,000 out of 8,000 Powhatans die.

Associating with settlers ends similarly for the Pemaquid and Wampanoags in what becomes Plymouth, Massachusetts. Led by Samoset, Squanto, and Massasoit—all of whom speak some English—the local Indian tribes help the settlers survive their first year (1620-21) in the new world by sharing food and teaching the settlers how to farm and fish. The colony expands rapidly. Some settlers ask for more land, while others just take it. By 1662 the Wampanoags are "being pushed back into the wilderness."

Massasoit's son Metacom believes the onslaught of white men in America will be the end of all Indians. He forms alliances with other Indian tribes, and in 1675 they attack 52 colonial settlements. Months of fighting leads to the complete destruction of 12 colonies and the extermination of nearly all the Wampanoags and the Narragansetts. The surviving women and children are sold into slavery, and Metacom's head is displayed as a war trophy in Plymouth. Similar situations play out for the next 200 years. Over and over again settlers arrive in a new territory offering promises of peace and then immediately encroach on native lands. Indians fight back, only to realize their weapons are no match for the firepower of the colonists. Entire tribes are eradicated.

In 1829 President Andrew Jackson recommends the establishment of an Indian territory west of the Mississippi River "to be guaranteed to the Indian tribes, as long as they shall occupy it." This becomes law in 1830. An 1834 law further defines Indian territory as everything west of the Mississippi River except Missouri, Louisiana, and Arkansas. But the United States is expanding so rapidly that the law has to be changed before it even goes into effect. The establishment of the Wisconsin and Iowa territories pushes the boundary even farther west to the 95th meridian, which slices through Wisconsin and Iowa, then along the western borders of Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, to Texas. The law also stipulates that no white traders of "bad character" can live in that territory, nor can white settlers.

It isn't long before these rules are broken. In 1846 U.S. soldiers cross into Indian territory to fight Mexico for land spreading from modern-day Texas to California. The United States wins and expands its territory to the Pacific Ocean. Gold is discovered in California in 1848, and the small trickle of white people moving through Indian territory turns into a flood as wagon trains make their way to settlements in California, New Mexico, and Oregon. To get around this violation of federal law, government officials adopt a policy of Manifest Destiny. This policy claims that Europeans and their descendants are "ordered by destiny" to rule all the territory between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Brown gives a brief overview of the tribes detailed in the rest of the book, including where they live and who their leaders are. By the massacre at Wounded Knee in December 1890, nearly all of them will have died.


The term Manifest Destiny was first coined in 1845 by John L. O'Sullivan, the editor of The United States Magazine, and Democratic Review, in an article on why Texas should be annexed, or added to the United States. He said European powers were "checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence." Democrats latched on to the phrase, and it eventually became the descriptor of the long-held American belief that westward expansion was the best way forward for the country. People who championed Manifest Destiny believed it was the divine right of American citizens to conquer all land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Although this seemed acceptable at face value, it was actually quite problematic. The catch is the phrase "American citizens." African Americans were not considered official citizens of the United States until the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868, and American Indians weren't granted citizenship until 1924. Thus, Manifest Destiny was really all about white people of European descent claiming land for themselves. The second problem is the words destiny and divine. They indicate an outcome preordained by God. The notion that God wanted white people to have all the land made the unfair treatment of non-whites more palatable. It was a racist policy cloaked in theological terms.

The success of Manifest Destiny relied on the inherent assumption that whites of European descent are superior to—or "better than"—non-whites. This point of view wasn't unique to the 19th century—Christopher Columbus said as much in his letter to the king and queen of Spain after landing on San Salvador in 1492. "Though it is true that they are naked ... their manners are decorous and praiseworthy," he wrote of San Salvador's indigenous peoples, the Tainos. The Tainos didn't wear clothing, which Columbus believed to be a sign of their inferiority. This, combined with their pleasant and welcoming behavior, made it seem like they would be easily conquered. Columbus told the king and queen the Tainos should be "made to work, sow, and do all that is necessary and to adopt our ways." Instead of accepting the Tainos as they were or trying to adapt to their ways, Columbus and his ilk tried to make them more like themselves. This happened all the way through the 19th century, and in many cases—including that of Powhatan chief Wahunsonacook—the indigenous peoples found it easier to go along with the white man's ways than resist.

Going to the white man's church or wearing European-style clothing is one thing, but giving up the right to use a certain piece of land is completely different. As Brown shows throughout Chapter 1 and the rest of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, it's nearly always the impetus for Indian resistance. The American Indian's relationship to the land is completely unlike that of their white European counterparts. Europeans and their descendants see land as a commodity, or something that can be bought, sold, and owned. Its value is based on its usefulness or proximity to something else. American Indians believe land is a gift from the Great Spirit (God) to support life. It cannot belong to anyone, so it therefore belongs to everyone. Land can be sacred depending on what has happened there, or which ancestors are buried on it. For the American Indians of the 19th century, leaving one's land behind was akin to leaving one's family. This is one reason why it was so hard for many eastern tribes, including the Cherokees, to be removed from their homelands and plopped into the middle of an unfamiliar territory. They were desperately homesick, and unable to acclimate to land that was as foreign to them as that of another country.

The rapid expansion of the United States is directly correlated with the shrinking of Indian lands. Historians estimate there were 600,000 to 900,000 Indians in what is now the United States in the early 17th century. By 1860 there were only 300,000. That's just one percent of the 30 million white Americans living in the United States at the same time. White voices were more important to politicians than native voices, mostly because white citizens determined whether politicians stayed in office. When white settlers demanded more land, the government jumped. This led to a lot of broken promises, especially for the Indians. Andrew Jackson's original Indian reservations were meant to be a permanent solution that ensured that Americans and American Indians had enough land to survive and thrive independently. But the country was expanding so rapidly that the law hadn't even gone into effect before it had to be changed. The American thirst for land led to hastily and poorly planned temporary solutions to long-term problems. Combined with racism against American Indians, it caused the near-destruction of an entire race.

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